Jews eat greasy food on Chanukah. While some prefer latkes and others doughnuts (or “sufganiyot,” as they’re known in Hebrew), the underlying custom is the same: to eat foods fried in oil.

The earliest mention of this custom seems to have been made by Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph (born c.1110), father of Maimonides, who wrote:

“[People] shouldn’t be lenient regarding any custom, even the lightest of customs. And one is obligated to make every effort to prepare festivities and foods to publicize the miracle that G‑d did for us on those days [i.e., Chanukah]. It has become customary to make “sufganin,” known in Arabic as “alsfingh” . . . This is an ancient custom, because they are fried in oil, in remembrance of His blessing.”1

In other words, there is an old custom to eat foods on Chanukah that are fried in oil, as a remembrance of the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days.2

This custom has remained firmly entrenched in Jewish practice.

More than 800 years later and on the other side of the globe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote that “on one of the evenings of Chanukah, [the third Lubavitcher Rebbe,] the Tzemach Tzedek, would customarily hold a kind of farbrengen with the members of his family, including his daughters-in-law. This gathering was known as a latke evening.” The Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe had done likewise. And the stories and subjects that they passed on at this festive meal included some that they spoke of every Chanukah, even though they had spoken of them the previous year.”3

The Oil of Torah

In addition to commemorating the miracle, the mystics point out that oil represents the esoteric level of the Torah, for oil both penetrates a material through and through, and rises above other substances. Chanukah, especially, is a time when one should increase his learning of the inner level—the “soul”—of the Torah.4

During the Chanukah story, the Greeks tried to detach the Jews from Torah. It’s not that they were against the intellectual, and even moral, teachings of the Torah. They were all for more knowledge. But they could not accept that the Jews viewed the Torah as Divine wisdom that transcends creation.

Thus, the physical battle between the Greeks and the Jews represented a deeper, philosophical controversy—between the rational and the suprarational. One can be a great Torah scholar, an expert in pilpulistic methodology, but if he is unaware of the soul of the Torah, if the “oil of Torah” has not penetrated into his being, then he can remain untouched by what he has learned. It is the "oil of Torah" that penetrates, permeates and illuminates one's whole being, empowering one to transform and illuminate the world.5